The berry season in the Skagit Valley starts in late May or early June and runs through late October. The first crop is strawberries which are the hardest to pick. Picking strawberries means straddling a row of plants, bent at the waist, and picking as you walk along hunched over. The farmworkers here say the first day hurts, the second hurts even worse, then it starts to get better. The next crop is raspberries, then blueberries, then blackberries. The strawberry season ended two weeks ago so the farmworkers are in the midst of raspberry picking. The day starts in the fields at 6 am.
Our youth are here to learn about the experience of Hispanic farmworkers, learn to live in solidarity, find out how God is at work here and how we can be a part of it, and discern what we have to offer this community. So our day started with the farmworkers at 6 am. That meant waking up at 4:30, eating a quick breakfast, and getting on the road to head out to the fields with the Paz family – a founding family of Resurreccion who has been picking berries here for 18 years. The Paz family works for Hayton Farms – one of the largest farms in the Skagit Valley. Every farm is has different rules, but the workers at Hayton Farms get one break during the workday from 10:00-10:30 for lunch.
There are several different categories of raspberries that determine which raspberries get picked. Raspberries picked for “market” (i.e., those that end up in the grocery store or farmer’s market) need to be firm, vibrant red, and not leading juices. Raspberries picked for canning or for juicing can be under or over-ripe. When picking for canning or juicing, the goal is to pick the plants clean of anything that is red in order for new fruit to grow that can be picked for the market. We picked for juicing today.
Picking berries is not fun work. It is hard, it can be boring and tedious, and our bodies were tired even after one day on the farm that only lasted five hours. Farmworkers work seven days a week, for over four months of the year. They need to pick fast because they are usually paid by the quantity (either the number or boxes for “market” berries, or by the bound for canning or juicing). The field we picked in today was 30 acres. The crew of around 35-40 workers is able to clear that field in a day, with each worker picking around 150lbs.
While our group certainly did not pick that fast, they worked hard. Apart from the occasional comment that became an opportunity to talk about respecting our hosts and not drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves (we already draw attention simply by our presence), our youth worked very well. They began to see just how grueling the work this community does actually is.
This afternoon, Francisco and Baudalina – both on staff at Resurreccion – took us on a tour of the Skagit Valley. We saw a several of the houses occupied by farmworking families. Many of the farms in the Skagit Valley offer housing free of charge for workers during the picking season. While that is a great “perk” of the job, the houses are beyond cramped. Two or three families might share a single room. Some of the housing only has a bathroom and a kitchen, leaving the family to sleep on the floor in the kitchen with all of their things. In the past several years, the state has closed many of the houses or camps due to unsafe and unsanitary conditions. That is one example of progress being made to recognize the humanity and dignity of the farmworkers, and treat them in a way we all want to be treated.
This is one of farmworker camps that closed two years ago. This building had four rooms, each with a bunkbed for a family. There were no cooking facilities and shared bathrooms in a separate building. The camp was closed because of hazardous conditions and overcrowding.
Other examples of progress are the addition of breaks to their workdays, bathroom facilities in the fields, and increased wages for work that takes a great deal of skill (we realized just how unskilled we are at berry picking today, even at an easy job like picking berries for juicing). We’ll say more about the progress being made for the farmworkers here, and the continuing needs, in the coming days. Our tour ended at Little Mountain Park which offers a breathtaking view of the Skagit Valley. There are dozens and dozens of farms lining the landscape all the way to the sound, with the Skagit River snaking through the middle. The reason the Skagit Valley is such prime farming ground is because the floodplain is so expansive. When the river floods, it fills the whole valley, depositing minerals from the mountain run-off in the soil.
As we always do on our mission trips, we ended our evening debriefing the experiences of the day and praying Compline together.
Tomorrow is not as early a morning. We’ll be back in the fields with the Paz family tomorrow afternoon.
Your prayers for good sleep (we’re next to I-5 with trains running through the night), energy, and continued open hearts and minds to take in our experience and learn how to live with and serve our brothers and sisters in the fields are much appreciated.